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Startup Recruiting

Having the right people in key positions can make or break a startup or any fast-growing tech company.

Part of what makes joining a startup so appealing is also what makes it that much more critically important to get right. A startup is all about possibility and vision – and having the right team in place is critical to achieving your startup’s goals. As startups are in their early stages, they generally have fewer employees, so that every new hire will impact the company’s culture and the way the company works – positive or negative. 

With so much riding on each hire, it is imperative to have a strong hiring process in place, to evaluate each candidate both thoroughly and fairly. However, just because it is important doesn’t mean that it is easy.

The Harvard Business Review found that 60% of startup failures can be attributed not just to a gap in an employee’s skills and experiences, but to their overall, holistic match for the organization’s needs during a time of rapid growth. To give your startup the best chance for success, it’s crucial to put these strong hiring processes into place early on, so that you’re able to build a great team from the very beginning.

Challenges to Startup Recruiting

So why is startup recruiting so tricky? Startups encounter different recruiting challenges than more established companies. These include:

No Recruiting Team ... Yet

An experienced team of recruiters is often seen as a luxury afforded to larger, more established companies. Startups tend to prioritize hires in engineering or product development first, as those are often the most urgent need.

However, without an experienced team in place, the sourcing, attracting, hiring and retaining of qualified candidates becomes even more complicated. Startup founders and business owners have a number of responsibilities to attend to - and the time-intensive process of recruiting can take attention away from other, equally important aspects of the business.

Learn more: Read about what it's like to be a startup recruiter.

Reflexive Recruiting

At a startup, structured headcount planning is rarely a strategic move that is planned well in advance - rather, recruiting tends to be opportunistic, and in response to a fast-moving business environment. Because startups are lean and agile, recruiting is focused on answering an immediate need when it is identified as a priority; however, this can lead to a lack of strategic planning and scalable processes for your other hiring needs in the future.

One challenge of this reflexive approach is the lag time between identifying a need and hiring for the position. Especially for candidates with high-demand skills, it can take a long time to find the right person for the job. Building a strategy that identifies a need in advance and takes time-to-hire into consideration is extremely valuable in ensuring timely, high-quality results.

Putting a strong process in place is also critical, especially when a company needs to scale quickly and hire several employees at once. Often, a startup will pass a milestone, such as a round of VC funding, and need to expand their team at short notice. Urgency alone is not enough to make high quality hires in a short period of time; adding a structured process, led by professional recruiters, is a better strategy for success.

Culture Add

Hiring employees that will add to your organization's culture is critically important to employee engagement and business results. You want to hire people who not only support your company’s values, but who also bring alternative viewpoints, new experiences and specialized skills. Instead of focusing on what a candidate doesn’t have, think about what they may bring to the table. It’s extremely helpful here to build a scalable and inclusive process early on versus trying to fix one down the road, especially when it comes to hiring a diverse team and creating an inclusive company culture. As you start growing your team and putting a process into place, keep D&I top of mind, understanding that it starts at the very beginning of the hiring process. 



Finding the right person – with the necessary combination of experience, passion, and skills is difficult, particularly in a competitive environment. Often, startups feel like they have to compete with the tech giants, offering candidates more money and an established brand to attract top talent - but the truth is they can’t compete when it comes to compensation, and they should not try to. Instead, they should look at the creative ways they actually can compete: offering the best benefits, a thoughtful, relaxed culture, modern PTO plans, etc - the things that truly make their startup unique. 

Check out our blog: “How to Succeed as a Start-up's First Recruiter

Startup Recruiting Strategies

To improve recruiting, startups can apply some key strategies.

Employee referrals

Your employees aren’t only a valuable resource: they can also be your biggest cheerleaders. Establish an employee referral program and use the networks of the people you have, to find the people you need.

Stand out

Working for a startup is a unique opportunity. Make the most of this by advertising your company’s unique culture; on your website, in content or marketing materials, and in your interactions with candidates.

Target talent that can be developed

Experience is valuable – but finding a person who is a good cultural add that can be trained or developed to become the ideal candidate is a great option as well. 

Frequently, startups target candidates in the opposite direction, showing a preference for individuals that are overqualified for a given position. This stems from the idea that an overqualified candidate can hit the ground running more easily, requiring less in the way of training and onboarding. However, this can be counterproductive - not only do these candidates require more resources to recruit, they can also disrupt compensation and pay scales and cause friction with other employees.

Developing skills in a promising candidate can be a winning strategy for a startup - allowing you to accelerate the recruiting and hiring process, hire at the appropriate salary range, and create a bond of loyalty with the candidate that can last well beyond the training and onboarding period. 

Go where the talent is

Fast-growing tech companies need to draw talent in, using creative methods that can reinforce their brand. One method is to think about where people with the skills you need congregate. This could be a physical meetup, like a career fair or professional mixer or event; or a digital forum. For example, a platform like GitHub facilitates the exchange of ideas among the technical community - and can be a terrific place to source technical talent as well.

Startups need to get creative and go above and beyond with their voices. Many have found great success with social recruiting: using professional platforms, like LinkedIn, or more social sites like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to locate and connect with candidates. These platforms are not only great tools to find  potential candidates, but also to reinforce your company’s values, mission, and brand.

Get help

Startup founders have to keep a number of balls in the air. When limited resources are devoted to areas outside of a company’s purpose, or a founder’s area of expertise, it is time to consider finding a partner to bridge that gap. At Gray Scalable, we help build amazing teams and develop customized programs that engage your people and advance your company’s culture. We provide data-driven programs and onsite support to meet our clients’ short-term hiring and HR needs, as well as to help them build the scalable processes necessary to ensure long term success. 


Bring in a recruiting partner: 4 Tips To Improve Startup Recruiting With Partnership Hiring